9(2), April 1992, pages 87-94
Analysis, File Sharing, and Freestanding Computers:
An "Exigential" Sequence
Writing strategies and word-processing features are best learned
when students meet exigencies that invoke them, when the need
to use a technique is embedded within a task rather than presented
nakedly. That's the main premise of a modest assignment sequence
that has students engage three interconnected problems of writing
and word processing. Ideally, of course, students would generate
their own exigencies, unilaterally defining tasks that stretch
their writing repertories. But the very ability to do so would
signify a kind of writerly sophistication that students almost
by definition cannot have; such idealized students would be at
the beginning where we'd hope them at the end. For at least half
of a first-year writing course, it makes sense for teachers to
create rich exigencies, even impure ones.
One strategic problem this sequence raises is how to analyze and
interpret narrated experience. Students confronted with tasks
such as "tell about something that happened to you and tell
us what it means" often respond with thin, Aesopean fable-like
essays: "I learned never to drink and drive again,"
or "Honesty is the best policy." Reasonably,
students haven't yet internalized rich heuristics for writing
The Personal Essay. One process for doing so--reading and exploring
far more personal essays than the handful of examples in the reader--consumes
more time than the single required writing class might justify.
The task is more effectively recast two ways. First, rather than
emphasizing a genre, the personal essay, it is more productive
to have student writers focus on the broader activities of interpreting
and using a certain kind of knowledge or data, lived experience,
that differs from other kinds of knowledge or data in its form
and rhetorical import. Second, because it is difficult for students
to analyze and interpret their own experience--their speculative
lenses are often monocular--it is more productive to have them
view their experience in the context of others' experience. In
plain terms, they can see more through the heuristic of "compare
and contrast" than through the hermeneutic of "interpret."
Next, this sequence challenges students to integrate data not
only from various sources and media, student experience, as I
have discussed above, but also from course readings. The problem
is both broadly analytical and presentational. Students must learn
to use readings to challenge, confirm, or re-direct their analyses
of experience and, crucially, vice-versa. In addition, they must
learn how to report those confirmations and redirections. By having
students write about reading and by asking them occasionally to
take a meta-view of what's going on in class, the sequence is
designed to produce a fertile chaos. Much of the teacher's work
consists of giving advice and options for how to proceed at appropriate
junctures. In a world unbounded by time, a wholly inductive approach
might be more defensible, but sixteen-week terms mandate at least
some top-down interventions.
Finally, the sequence creates a reason for learning how to manipulate
computer files and parts of files. The publication of this article
in Computers and Composition notwithstanding, I've saved
this point for last to reflect what I hope students will realize,
specifically, that word-processing features were developed substantially
to expedite real writing operations. (I don't deny that the arrow
can point the other way, too, with technology influencing writing.)
In this case, the ability to manipulate easily files and large
chunks of text is instrumental for developing the strategic skills
I described in the two paragraphs above.
A few more contextual remarks before I present (finally!) the
assignments. The sequence was written as the second one, beginning
in week four of an English 101 course at Illinois State University.
English 101 is a course in writing nonfiction public discourse
and has a substantial writing about reading component; the textbook
for all first-time graduate teaching assistants is Robert Atwan's
Our Times/2: Readings from Recent Periodicals. All sections
of every writing course at Illinois State University are computer-assisted.
In the English 101 classrooms, there is one Zenith 286 computer,
with one hard drive and one floppy drive, and one dot matrix printer
for each student; all faculty and graduate teaching assistants
have similar computers in their offices. Class size is limited
to 21 students, who learn WORDPERFECT 4.2 at the beginning of
the semester, and who outside of class time have access to the
ten computer classrooms and seven similarly-equipped labs across
campus. Although all classrooms are scheduled to be networked,
both locally and globally into the university system, the computers
currently are freestanding.
The sequence below was written for a three-day per week class.
All statements in quotation marks are "camera ready"
as I would present them, in writing, to students. Other statements
are "teacher-planning language" directed to myself.
[In the previous class, students were reminded to bring their
textbooks to class.]
- Discuss the title of Eisler's "Our Lost Heritage: New
Facts on How God Became a Man." Invite students to speculate
on the meaning of the title and share some reactions.
- "I'd like you to read the first part of the essay, to
the page break on page 376. What surprises--or disturbs, or excites--you
most in this first section? Why? I'd like you to explain your
responses in a file named with your first name, the initial of
your last name, a period, and 2A (for exercise 2A). My file would
be named DougH.2A."
- Invite a few students to read their responses.
- Repeat the directions above for as many sections of the essay
as time comfortably allows.
- "Use the last ten minutes of the class to write two short
pieces, also in the file FirstL.2A. (Yes, this is too short
a time to do serious work, so blurt bravely and with impunity.)
First, explain the title of Eisler's piece, as best you can, to
someone who hasn't read it. Second, speculate on how different
types of readers will respond to this article. How do you think
the women in the class will respond? The men? People you like?
People you don't like? Please hand in all of your writings."
- Introduce Exercise B: Assignment for Day Two.
"Think of a particular time in the past few days--the more
recent, the better--that you spent with a group of people of your
own gender. (If you're male, think of an afternoon or evening
spent with a group of men, a group of friends, for example, or
people who live near you. If you're female, think of time spent
with a group of women.) Describe that occasion. The challenge
here is to recall as much detail as possible. Where did this experience
take place? Why? What did you do? Who was there? What did you
talk about? Can you recall specific bits of conversation or specific
topics? What are/were they like? What was your part? These are
only a few questions you might use to get started. Include anything
that comes to mind about this experience. Your object should be
to create the fullest, most detailed story you can. I'll have
you share a copy of this writing with others in the class. Name
your file like this: DougH.2B (your first name and initial
of your last name followed by a period and then 2B, the unit and
- a. "Begin today by copying your writing onto everyone
else's disk. First copy your file onto your hard drive. Then,
pass your disk to the left. When you get a disk, copy your FirstL.2B
file from the hard drive onto the disk in the floppy drive. Then
pass your classmate's disk to the left. Continue the process until
you have copied your file onto everyone's disk and you have received
your own back."
b. "Create a new file named Men. Read into Men
the FirstL.2B documents of all the males in the class.
Then create a file named Women. Read all of the women's
documents into this file."
c. "Do some organizational editing on each file. Add headings
or spacings, move blocks around, or do whatever else you need
to do in order to make Men and Women easy for you
- "The handout I've given you contains some class responses
to Eisler's essay. I've grouped the responses by their author's
gender. Do these groupings make sense, based on what people have
written and how they have written it? Or is this entirely an artificial
division? Do the responses tend to confirm or challenge your predictions
at the end of the last class? Keep this handout. You may find
it and these questions useful as you draft the unit paper, which
I'll assign next time."
- Introduce Exercise C: Assignment for Day Three.
"Analyze the Men and Women files you created
in class today. Write about each of the following questions. To
do a good job, you'll probably need to write several paragraphs
- "Concentrate on the file for your own gender. Which other
occasion is most like your own? Which is least?"
- "Do the experiences (or several of them, anyway) have
anything in common?"
- "Concentrate on the file for the opposite gender. Which
experiences match your expectations? Which do you find most surprising?"
- "Do the experiences (or several of them, anyway) have
anything in common?"
- "How might you meaningfully group several of the experiences
in a way other than by gender?
Name this file using our "name" convention, i.e., FirstL.2C."
- "In small groups today, please discuss your responses
to questions b, c, d, and e from Exercise C. Select one person
as recorder. This person should take careful notes of the whole
conversation. The group should work to synthesize their responses
for a report to the entire class later this hour. The group doesn't
have to reach unanimity."
- Introduce Exercise D: Assignment for Day 4.
"Read "Twice an Outsider." Write a summary of this
essay. Then, either a) write a response to question 4 or b) develop
a response from one of the annotations you made while reading."
- Introduce Unit Paper assignment: This assignment is due at
the end of week 3.
"Physically, men and women are different. That's a given.
But are there other important gender differences between men and
women--in what they think and do, for example? Conventional wisdom
and a fair amount of theory and research suggest the answer is
'yes,' but you may, in fact, be able convincingly to answer 'no.'
To develop your position on this question, draw upon your experiences
and those of people in this class as you have analyzed and discussed
them. Also, draw upon readings in the textbook. You may, of course,
bring whatever else you wish to bear in developing your answer,
but don't ignore the data from the class. One piece of advice:
Your paper will likely be most effective if you concentrate on
a single issue or a cluster of very closely related ones rather
than listing a number of disconnected observations. Imagine that
your readers are the readers of one of the publications from which
the Our Times essays were taken."
- "Open the file from Exercise D. Block the section containing
your response and read it into a new file, named FirstL.2D2.
I'm going to have you share this file with several other readers
in the class, so do whatever last minute editing you'd like."
- Have students copy their FirstL.2D2 files onto one anothers'
disks, using the directions from day 2. These files provide futher
information that might be analyzed and used in the paper.
- Present briefly, with examples, how to blend ideas or information
from readings with the report and analysis of experience.
- In-class drafting and conferencing.
Draft 1 of Unit Paper due.
- "Take five minutes to write about your draft. First, explain
what you tried to do. Explain strategies or procedures you used,
and tell what you think has gone well with the paper so far. Also
explain what you wish were going better. Name your file whatever
you'd like. Then, on the back of your draft, write a question
that you would like others in your group to answer when they read
- "Meet in groups of four. Pass papers one person to the
left. Working individually and writing at your computer, explain
the strategies or procedures the author seemed to be using and
comment on what you think has gone well with the paper so far.
Then, explain what else you'd like to see done with this paper.
Finally, try to jot a response to the question on the back of
the draft. Keep exchanging papers until you've had a chance to
write about all of them."
- "In your groups, briefly discuss what members wrote about
each of the papers. You might do this by reading from your comments
on each. Authors should share comments about their own papers
last. Before you leave, give copies of your comments to their
respective authors. Don't worry; they will be as tolerant of your
rushed remarks as you will be of theirs."
Draft 2 of Unit Paper due.
- "Read eight or nine drafts straight through. Jot down
notes about qualities of the papers you think are going pretty
well. Together as a class we'll try to generate criteria for what
you think a good paper will be for this assignment.
- Introdue Exercise E: Assignment for Day 7.
"Read "Dangerous Parties." You'll notice that Keegan
shifts back and forth between distant and more recent events and
between the narrative of Sarah's rape and his commentary on it.
Summarize the events of this essay in chronological order. Then
consider why Keegan chose the order he did. What effects does
he achieve by avoiding chronological order?"
- Collect drafts for reading over the weekend.
- Return drafts with comments and present strategies for dealing
with some organizational or developmental problems, using parts
of a few drafts as examples.
- Discuss "Dangerous Parties." [This is an article
about date rape.] Begin with question: "What do you think
of "Ogre," who is described on page 218 of the essay?
Have you seen "Ogre-like" characters portrayed in the
media? How are we to take them?" At the end of class, have
students write about the discussion, paying particular attention
to who said what and how--and what might have been said in a different
context or among a different group of people."
- Discuss any "surface problems" common to several
drafts: problems in documenting format or common surface errors,
- Spend the rest of the time conferring with individual students
as they work at the computer.
[Note: Days 8 and 9 I typically begin activities to introduce
the next assignment sequence.]
Unit Paper, final draft due.
- "Write a commentary on the process of completing this
assignment. Did you learn anything about the topic? About yourself
or your classmates? About writing? About the computer? Can you
think of other writing tasks that are similar to this one?"
Some Brief Last Comments about the Sequence
As with many computer activities, copying files from floppy disks
to hard disks and back inevitably takes longer than you think
it should, especially with glitches in the floppy disks. If you
know your class well and it is reasonably diverse, you can cut
time by having them garner files from ten other students rather
than from the entire class. To do this most easily, arrange students
in groups at adjacent computers--and long for the day the lab
Students may tend to see this particular assignment sequence as
yet another tyrannizing instance of an English teacher "shoving
this feminist stuff" at them. It's important, then, frequently
to make explicit the general writing issues of interpretation,
analysis, and integration at stake in this task. Having them reflect
on the class and on their writing process (as I've indicated twice
above) helps, as do brief teacher presentations on strategies
and techniques, rather than content. A writing class must finally
be a writing class, however crucial a position may be at stake.
Any assignment that has everyone writing on the same topic risks
browbeating some students into feigning interest, with the resultant
cost to their success and class morale. When possible, if I am
following a fairly tight sequence like this, I try to give students
a choice between two tracks. Writing about gender, however, at
least dangles the promise that all students will have some experiences
and opinions from which to draw.
Douglas Hesse teaches in the Department of English
at Illinois State University.
Atwan, R. (1991). Our times/2: Readings from recent periodicals.
New York: St. Martin's Press.